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Hostility between Sarah and Hagar foreshadows international conflict

The Great Pyramid of Giza. Cairo, Egypt.
The Great Pyramid of Giza. Cairo, Egypt.
Photo by Ed Giles/Getty Images

The history of Israel as recorded in the Old Testament is an intricately woven tapestry of people, events and prophecies which come together to chronicle the nation’s fall and redemption (and, ultimately, humanity's fall and redemption). One such instance, which at first glance seems unremarkable but in reality is highlighted to enhance the story, is found in Genesis chapters 15-16.

In Genesis 16, Sarai (Sarah) mistreats her Egyptian maid Hagar so that Hagar is compelled to flee from her mistress’s presence. This follows right on the heels of chapter 15 where Abram is told in a dream that his descendants would be enslaved and mistreated by a foreign people, who we know turn out to be the Egyptians. The author of Genesis employs very similar language to describe the Egyptians’ oppression of Abram’s descendants (Gen. 15:13) and Sarai’s oppression of her Egyptian slave (Genesis 16:6). The reversal here is not to be missed.

In the case of Sarai and Hagar, as with the Hebrew nation in bondage in Egypt, the animosity resulted from tension and suspicion regarding the other's offspring. Hagar conceived when Sarai could not, and this caused hostility between the two women. Similarly the Hebrews were oppressed because their offspring were so numerous that the Egyptians feared that they would become dominant if they were not held under oppression (Exodus 1:9-14). In both cases, children remain at the heart of the story. Producing offspring resulted in a power struggle: Bearing children gave the weaker party power so as to make them a threat to their masters.

In this vein, another parallel runs through these two instances of oppression: Later in Genesis, in chapter 21, Sarah wanted to get rid of Hagar’s son, so that her own son's place would be secure. We find an echo of this concept in Pharaoh, who decided to rid Egypt of male Hebrew infants in the attempt to securely maintain Egyptian rule (Exodus 1:15-22).

The story of Sarai and Hagar can be seen as a microcosm of what would happen later on in the life of the nation as a whole. Hagar ultimately represents two nations: The nation of Egypt (her own nationality) and Islam (originating with her son, Ishmael), both of which would be at odds with Sarah's children. This hostility would be present- on a significantly larger and more destructive scale- in the broader life of all of their descendants. Like the enmity between the serpent and Eve, and between their offspring, this hostility would endure down through the ages.

In every stage of human history, the mark of sin has been glaring, and yet God's plan prevails. This is what gives us hope for the future and gives us faith that the story continues and that the ending will be glorious, despite the pain and the trials we encounter along the way.

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